Beauty And Awe And Psychedelics And Monkeys

So there I was the other night, deep in a YouTube hole, feeling its algorithms clank and churn and some video loaded and began to play and it changed the course of my evening. It seemed pretty inauspicious, just a bunch of people taking turns to look at a painting. But as I watched something strange happened.


Fifteen seconds in the hairs on my arm began to stand on end, a minute later my eyes were wet with tears, and by the end my face had cracked into some sort of cubist jumble. With salty cheeks I gathered myself and wondered what the hell was going on.

The eyes of these people were trained on the Salvator Mundi, a painting of seismic historical importance once thought lost, but after cleaning and restoration, newly attributed to Leonardo de Vinci.

The hype was real.

It was sold at auction by Christie’s New York, and for two weeks prior people queued in the rain the length of entire blocks to catch a glimpse of it. The painting the size of a lunch tray went for £450m, the most expensive artwork ever sold. Then disappeared.


I watched the video a few more times to try and recapture the emotion I’d felt, which came easily, and resolved to get to the bottom of this thing. What had I reacted to, what was it. Awe in the face of supreme beauty? Why would that move me to tears. Why do we have a strange physiological reaction to beauty.

Where does awe come from. What purpose does it serve.


*

Eight million years ago a group of chimpanzees making their way through the African savanna stooped to pick up a mushroom. They found more and ate a bunch and again strange things started to happen.


The stoned ape theory claims that chimps experimenting with different food groups led them to psychedelic psilocybin mushrooms, which upon ingestion began to radically alter their behaviour. Over millions of years the mushroom trips led to heightened vision, the invention of language, harnessing of fire, and some argue the inexplicable doubling of the human brain size.

Scientists don’t really buy the stoned ape theory. But an early hominid getting high is still meaningful, in that it must’ve been the first instance of the elevation of the animal brain into the realms of the transcendent. The first time a living thing might’ve been aware of something far bigger than itself, and felt awe.


Scientists now think psychedelics were behind all prehistoric cave art. Without doubt the psychedelic experience has been responsible for the birth of religions and profound leaps in cultural evolution.


When Picasso clambered out of Lascaux cave in 1949 after seeing the bulls and lions and rhinoceros that had lain undiscovered in their darkness for 17,000 years, he exclaimed in wonder at his ancestors… we have invented nothing.

But what do psychedelics have to do with looking in awe at a Leonardo.

Turns out the neurochemistry in the brain is identical. When the brain experiences awe, the default mode network, the part which allows multiple brain regions to interact with each other simultaneously, gets cranked up.


The brain switches its focus to the right hemisphere, the part responsible for imagination and intuition, and what results is a feeling of deep connection to the world. Awe has been called ‘the perception that is bigger than us’. On psychedelics, the same part of the brain is activated.


Early humans eating a bunch of mushrooms and staring at the heavens would’ve encountered mystical experiences completely outside their daily remit of hunting and gathering and finding shelter. Inspiring them to create representations of what they saw on the walls of caves.

But why.


Why do we have a capacity for awe and mystical experience.

Why did watching a bunch of people in New York be so affected by a painting make all the hairs on my neck stand on end, piloerection, the same thing that happens to a cat when it sees a particularly big dog, and reduce me to a blubbering wreck. How did it improve my life.

Victor Frankl, the neurologist who wrote Man’s Search For Meaning about his time in the concentration camps, thought awe was about meaning. Beyond personal responsibility, he thought we could face up to the demands of existence through a loving dedication to beauty.

‘Imagine you are sitting in a concert hall and listening to your favourite symphony, and your favourite bars of the symphony resound in your ears, and you are so moved by the music that it sends shivers down your spine, and now imagine it would be possible for someone to ask you in this moment whether your life has meaning. I believe you would only be able to give one answer, and it would go something like ‘it would have been worth it to have lived for this moment alone!”


*

The splashes of beauty around us, thought Frankl, were there to pit against the one constant in life the Buddha spoke of, the fact of our suffering. That what touches us deeply might lift us out of our drudgery for a brief moment to remind us that all is not so hopelessly lost, if only we look hard enough.

Best of all he loved the fall
The leaves yellow on cottonwoods
Leaves floating on trout streams
And above the hills
The high blue windless skies

The unexpected smile from the bus driver. The floated echo of the empty church. The smell of the air after new rain, the lick of condensation on the pint glass, the Jack Wilshere goal against Norwich someone uploaded to Pornhub.


*

Maybe the question is not why we have the capacity for awe, but why we walk around so blind to beauty. There are those who see too much beauty, who grapple all their lives with it. They look and look and look and report back on what they have seen.


Artists remind us that everything however small or insignificant is worthy of infinite attention. Their lesson is this. All that there is, can be found exactly where you are, always. We are everything, and everything is us, and so the finite becomes infinite. The psychedelic lesson is the same.

What Blake meant when he wrote:

To see the World in a Grain of Sand
And Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour

Being in a permanent awe-addled state might be slightly inconvenient, given that we would forget to eat and probably starve. So the brain has a prefrontal cortex. The linear, logical, problem-solving part of the brain, the 18 stone bouncer manning the doors of perception, hellbent on sleep and food and survival.


Working overtime while the larger parts of our brain remain mostly dormant. Freezing out the default mode network from making its connections. Fencing us off from the sublime because we could not reside there. Perhaps in the end, awe is the transcendent slipping through the cracks.


‘It was an April day’ wrote Albert Hoffman, the Swiss chemist who discovered LSD by chance and dedicated his life to the study of it, ‘and going out into the garden I saw it had been raining during the night. I had the feeling that I saw the earth and the beauty of nature as it had been when it was created, at the first day of creation. What an experience! I was reborn, seeing nature in quite a new light.

Go to the meadows, go to the garden, go to the woods. Open your eyes!’


*

Eight million years ago a hungry chimp ate a mushroom and pulled back the veil and got the party started, and here we are. Strange living things carrying inside us a bizarre capacity for mystical experience. Nature, psychedelic plants, meditation, outstanding works of art and literature and music, love, from inside them the unknown shines out, sparking an ember inside us.

Pushing us out to meet something bigger than ourselves. A sense of connection to the universe that is normally far beyond the narrow band of our consciousness. But is there all around us, always, if we keep our eyes open wide and learn how to look.

A portal to the divine.


Or perhaps the Divine reaching down to brush us with the tip of a finger.

Parenting as An Act of Blind Faith

A lot of my homeys are having babies.

When I say homeys, I mean fellow men. I suppose they’re not having babies exactly, women have babies, men become fathers. At around one in the afternoon on the first Wednesday of December, my brother became a father for the first time. Seeing someone so close to me go through something so heavy is very hard to describe, harder still to understand.


To say it was amazing is a waste of a word, I haven’t really digested it yet. For him it was so heavy it was overwhelming, for my folks and me it was overwhelmingly joyous, but it was also a reminder about how little any human being really knows about anything.

Especially the serious stuff.

My contemporaries going through the process of having kids is for me the most clear-cut sign of how everyone is styling every single thing out to the Nth degree. No-one knows what they’re doing. They just pretend they do. I wrote once about how my parents didn’t have a clue what they were doing when they got married. Yet somehow they’re still together.


Seeing the expression on my brother’s face in the hospital room hours after he became a father was a reminder that most of the time in life, you have to make a decision and then adapt to the results. That’s the reality. Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and step out into the abyss with nothing but blind faith to hold your hand.

Which is scary as hell, but not nearly as scary as doing the opposite. Making no decision at all. The sinister place Dr Seuss called…

The Waiting Place

So plunge into the decision we do.

Does it get any easier. Two award-winning docs following my man Guy the process of becoming a pop paint the same bleak picture, and would suggest that no, no it doesn’t get any easier whatsoever.

But obviously having a child is far from bleak, that wasn’t my point. The reason I started this post talking about homeys is because it concerns the male response to parenthood. Like much of life, females have a head start on us, being that they are more involved in the natural side of the world. Pregnancy for men is pretty abstract, I mean they go through none of the hormonal fireworks associated with the mother, they hear about cravings and feign a raised eyebrow and mumble something like… vanilla ice cream again, how interesting.


Post-birth they also find themselves at the shallow end of the utility-pool, because they don’t have breasts. Turns out breast-feeding is about more than just nutrition. It’s skin to skin contact, eye to eye gaze, the rocking is an embodiment of rhythm, it forms the beginning of the establishment of the relationship. And breast-feeding even produces children with higher IQs. But pops miss out on all of this. Instead they look on quizzically, pretend to be taking it in, and then balls up the first 53 nappy changes.

A new father would be much better placed to tell you this stuff. But in his defence, while some women don’t feel maternal at all, the maternal instincts of some men are off the charts. Shortly after Mary was born, my father described how he saw my brother connecting to her with a type of totally animal intuition, emanating from both his heart and his body. Maybe men with more evolved emotional centres find a way of connecting with their newborns in a way other men find harder, I don’t know.

My brother said he always wanted to have a girl.

He says right at the beginning the idea freaked him out. But when they found out pretty early on in the pregnancy that she was going to be a she, he said he much preferred the idea. He’d heard about how men have more issues with boys, how a daughter is the apple of her father’s eye. I also have a sneaking suspicion that, more so than a boy, he felt like a daughter would be more of a protector, and my brother quite likes company.

I don’t have a girlfriend and with one sorry exception I can’t remember the last time I went on a date, so I’m pretty far from the following predicament. But personally, the idea of being a father to a daughter makes me really quite scared, like almost queasy. And try as I might i can’t get to the bottom of it. I have a feeling the reason is a bit more complex than sports, something a little deeper than Peter Griffin’s moment of dawning realisation in the maternity ward.

I think it’s to do with how little I understand women.

Add in some Freudian stuff, sprinkled with my belief in the matriarchal setup of the world, that how contrary to our delusions women run things, they control everything, but at a much deeper level than equal pay etc. Nature is female, women carry life inside them, men are tools, that kind of thing. And the weird idea that this figure of dominance, this embodiment of feminine power, would be so tiny and helpless but I think just pretending to be, doesn’t convince me at all. Perhaps it’s something to do with that thing that we never really escape the womb. Despite what we might think, we’re all kinda still in there.

Like Hesse’s quote about trees rustling.

A longing to wander tears my heart when I hear the trees rustling in the wind at evening. If one listens to them silently for a long time, the longing reveals its kernel, its meaning. It is not so much a matter of escaping from one’s suffering, though it may seem so. It is a longing for home, for a memory of the mother, for new metaphors for life. It leads home.


*

There’s a French-Canadian film called The Barbarian Invasions. About a man diagnosed with a terminal illness, and it follows the last few months of his life surrounded by his family and his mistresses. It’s a serious film, heart-breaking but also hilarious. There’s a scene right at the end, where our man close to his deathbed, when he receives a satellite video message from his daughter, who is on a boat stranded out in the Southern ocean, unable to get back to him, knowing she will never get the chance to see him again. It’s a goodbye.

When casting the role of the daughter, who appears just once in the whole film in this scene, the actress Isabelle Blais recorded herself doing a read-through and sent it by email to the director Denys Arcand. He recounts that when he saw it for the first time, he broke down, sobbing uncontrollably. And once he’d recovered, he called her to say the part was hers.

It’s been too long since I last saw you. My daddy. My papuschka. I’ll have missed you my whole life. Tell yourself that I’m a happy woman. That I’ve found my place. I don’t know how you did it, but you managed to pass on your lust for life, you and Mum raised incredibly strong children. It’s a miracle really.

And then she goes big.

It never really fails to reduce me to a blubbering wreck.

It’s basically the opposite of Peter Griffin in the maternity ward. It made me think the real reason why I’m so scared of having a baby girl one day, that perhaps I wouldn’t think twice about were it not a girl, is that the stakes are too high.


There’s something about the bond between a father and a daughter that sits right at the top of the cake. You don’t mess with it. Like, what is stronger in human nature than that. Her looking up at him, him looking back down at her. It’s different to father-son, it’s more hardcore it seems to me, it might be the single most precious dynamic that exists. And so perhaps rightly so, it scares the life out of me.


I think I’m afraid my hypothetical daughter would see right through me. She’d realise what a deficient human being I am, erring and bumbling and messing things up. And what’s more she’d be female. Those strange beings I uphold as dominant to men in almost every way. I couldn’t hide from her.


*

My mate Alfie has a five year old daughter called Iris. He told me the other day that although he didn’t think he would be the type of person to admit this, Iris is his best mate in the whole world. He says he tells her all the time. And he said if it came down to it, he’d hang out with her above anyone else.

He also said this.

Whatever veiled moments of glory life might throw our way from time to time, they sure as hell won’t come about as a result of inaction. Life demands that we live it forward. This whole thing about my friends becoming parents being an act of blind faith, seeing my brother with Mary and the emotions she’s brought him even just over the course of the five short weeks of her life so far, me freaking out about the idea of being a dad to a little girl one day, they’re all examples of the same thing.


We have this idea that we need to believe something strongly before we decide to do it. But actually much of the time, what we need to do is act. And then figure out what the hell is going on, while we go. Like Douglas Adams’ character Dirk Gently says in The Long Dark Tea-Time Of The Soul…


I may not have gone where I intended to go.


*


 But I think I have ended up where I needed to be.

A Shock First Meeting with A Plant Medicine

And above all watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you.

Because the greatest secrets are hidden in the most unlikely places.

Those who do not believe in magic will never find it.


*

At the end of the summer in the middle of a wood in the south of Holland I sat for two nights in the pitch black of a cabin under the watchful eye of a shaman and drank a powerful brew concocted by the ancient tribes of the Amazon. 

The Vine of the Soul, the Vine of the Dead, Ayahuasca, a dark green gloop made up of the leaves of one plant and the vine of another found in opposite ends of the jungle, boiled together to make a plant medicine, a sacred healing power used by these tribes for some say thousands of years.

Ingested independently of one another the plants are broken down quickly in the digestive tract and have no effect. Mixed together and boiled down into a liquid and ingested, one small cupful can elicit journeys of the mind, experiences of the spiritual and the mystical, and realisations of such scale they can change the course of lives.

When the Amazonian tribes were asked how they knew to combine the two, how on earth they had landed on the right combination from the 70,000-odd species found growing in the jungle, they were known to reply simply… the plants told us.

Seven strangers, having just met, inside a cabin sat together in a circle, our shaman explaining to us we had been brought there for a reason. The medicine had called us there. We were asked to trace our journey back to its inception and describe it to the present moment, as we listened to one another’s stories we felt more connected, not only to each other but to the place. Our differing paths had somehow conspired to lead us there, to sit with one another at that exact point in time, to share in an experience which was to bind us.

There were to be two ceremonies, on consecutive evenings, which would involve the drinking of the medicine and then sitting in darkness for five hours while it took effect, amid silence and the soft beat of the fire, and the intermittent backdrop of the medicine music known as the icaros.

Walking in the woods outside the cabin moments before the first ceremony, I stooped down to pick up an acorn from the forest floor. I was excited but not nervous, since I had no idea whatsoever to expect. I had nothing to go on other than accounts I had read, and the weight of the experience I was about to have was as foreign to me as the waking life of a person I had never laid eyes on. I clenched the acorn in my hand hard, summoning a strength I anticipated I would need, and put it in my pocket.

For two nights I was plunged into worlds which language seems incapable of expressing. I’m not sure we have the requisite words to capture what I saw. For as soon as I try the visuals themselves become overly simplified. There were colours and hues of all kinds of a sharpness and luminosity which I’d never seen, morphing, ebbing and flowing into one another.

Geometric patterns and shapes endlessly twisting and dissolving into each other at huge speeds. Mandalas and spirals and cathedrals of light, endless space, and memories from my life floating in and out of reach, recreated in such precision and detail that I was able to peer in and investigate them from all angles like a museum exhibit.

Our shaman had told us that the spirit of the medicine, Mother Ayahuasca, shows one what one needs to see, when one needs to see it. Around the darkened room, my fellow brothers and sisters – for the harmony and deep feeling of communion brought on by the medicine made them feel something like kin – were each on their own journeys.

Some gasped and gurgled and laughed giddily in the manner of young children, some cried softly in new understanding, some cried from joy, some stared silently into the light of the fire, and all around the room we were vomiting into our buckets, vomiting out the pain that had lodged itself inside us. If one of us was purging, we were purging for each other. And this purging brought relief for the individual and collectively for us all.

And as we did the songs of the shaman and the voices of the musicians swam in and out of our consciousness. The medicine came in waves, taking over my senses on all fronts, just as we had been told it would. Mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually. It bombarded me, demanding complete surrender to it.

And as it did it stripped away layer upon layer of my shit, the shit that I had packed onto myself, it cleaned me, rejuvenated me, and gave me a vision of life, not a new one but an ancient one, existing eternally beyond the muck and the pain and the self-loathing that we cling to in order to translate our own pain.

It was a kind of paradise.

Writhing in the darkness trying to contain the energy cursing through my body, clinging onto my pillow like a lifebuoy, I found my hand inside my mouth, that I was sucking on all my fingers, drooling laughing crying and wretching all at once. Feeling a profound calm and a joy. Three days later I would realise I had been a baby, physically inhabiting a state of innocence and simplicity I had not encountered for 34 years.

The medicine seemed intent on showing me to myself. I was shown myself from a distance, walking into a pub. I was a fly on the wall, a spy in the corner, watching myself interact with people. I could see it was me, I recognised that face, not the face reflected in the mirror but the face I see in photos, familiar to me yet alien, and still, watching myself was beholding a person I’d never laid eyes on. I was good natured, enthusiastic, focussed on the other person, I was smiley, quick to laugh, I was playful, I was curious, I was alright, I thought.

I’m alright.

It has been said that to know oneself is to encounter oneself in action with another person. This was being shown to me now, in surround-sound HD. And the words rolled across my mind like a message rolling across an LCD display. Perhaps this is who you really are. Perhaps this is who you really are. Perhaps this is who you really are. The version of me that I had set in stone had revealed its weak spot. And the medicine was a chisel, working away at its edges, ready to break it to pieces.

Why are you so hard on yourself. Why do you beat yourself up all the time. You’re not an arsehole. You’re a beautiful person. I don’t have to beat myself up all the time. Is this real. Could I be free from this. What might life be like if I wasn’t so hard on myself. How might you go about your day without turning all this stuff back on you. You don’t need to be constantly aware of what other people want. You can be who you want to be. It’s okay to be. Okay to just feel things. You don’t have to be so scared all the time. Do the things that make you feel good. What is this. What does it mean. What does this all mean. It’s too powerful. Let go. Release yourself. Stop trying to control it all. Surrender. You’re allowed to feel whatever you feel. Whatever you want to feel. You are loved.

Just be.

In the throes of all this, lying horizontally under a huge canopy of green, at one point the soft underbelly of an enormous serpent filled my whole vision, a light brown scaled skin moving over me, slithering up to me on my right hand side, blinking at me with an enormous eye that emanated a warm and benevolent energy. And quickly it kissed me on the cheek, stealing a kiss almost, before slithering away again down and out of my vision.

That night I went to bed with the lightness of a five year old in a state of bliss, raw uncut.

And the next morning I awoke into a new world.

*

It is very easy to dismiss all this. Because I did.

Before the weekend was finished, a fear began to mount in me that what I had seen was an illusion, that my visions and realisations were not real, the precise details of which I was beginning to forget, that I would soon forget all of it. And simultaneously from stage-left, a slowly creeping cynicism began to wind its way into my brain.

Once back in London, I found my inner voice growing more and more bitter, instead of feeding off the harmony the medicine had revealed to me, I was more disconnected from people than ever, I felt jaded and distant and embattled.

I became sad and low, I saw London as a gnarled den of sham, drudgery and broken dreams, of people killing themselves with excess, of the homeless on the street ignored and wasting away in front of our eyes. And I understood for the first time the meaning in the idea that the cynic is the idealist who has had his heart broken.

I had been shown a version of paradise. And real life was shattering it to pieces. Our shaman had warned us about integration, the process of coming back from what we had seen, and the likelihood of it being far from easy. Your experience will slowly begin to fade, he had said. You can keep it alive by engaging in spiritual practices, by keeping yourself centred, by trying to remember all the things you have learned.

*

So what was real.

I can tell you what I know. In the space of three days, I saw seven people go through a process of enlightenment that shook them to their very core, that took years off them, that grounded them deeply in an understanding of their lives, that they had hitherto been unable to attain.

I heard them share deep truths about themselves, revealing their vulnerabilities like gaping wounds, I saw people being returned to an innocence that at some point down the line they had parted ways with. An innocence perhaps we have all lost, something we know is deeply nested inside us, but have forgotten how to look for.

I saw a vision of the world stripped of the superficial things that try to muffle it. No rules, no systems of rationalisation, no pigeon-holing, no ego. Things as they are, and as they always have been. Song as an expression of joy when talking won’t suffice. Dance as the same expression when one can no longer stand still. An ancient language speaking up to us from the very loins of the earth. Preaching one thing above all others.

Love.

We are just human beings, spoke the voice, eternal souls in a human body, wanting to live in peace with one another, wanting to love each other, and be with each other, in harmony. I learnt that everything is love. Pain is love. Fear is love. It is all part of the same thing. The one binding force of the earth that unites us all in the face of our suffering. For my part I learnt that I was lovable, that I am loved, that I can love.

That perhaps we see the world from behind the bars of our own ego, one that tricks us and deceives us and deludes us. And somehow there are substances that break down these barriers, drawing across the curtain for us to see things as they are.

Maybe with all our intelligence and our civilisation and our distractions, we’re missing out on ancient signals from the earth, messages from the natural world that we’re not picking up anymore, as if the earth literally does speak to us. If we care to listen, the right answers are there, waiting.

Imagine a waiter showing up with a silver platter, empty-looking to the naked eye, but on it lies this way of seeing. The world as I have just described. Would you care for a serving, sir? he asks. Not right now, I’m trying to live. True to form, he waits. Patiently by your side, unobtrusively, fading into the background. Don’t mind me sir, I’ll be here for the foreseeable future. This dish doesn’t get cold. It’s here if you want it.

It’s always here.


*

At times now, I feel far away from it all. Back in the glare of the lights and the horns and the endless distraction. The impatience and the fear and the narrow joy. That world, the spirit realm, the vine of the soul, it can seem far away. But it is there. The waiter is always there, by your side, with his platter. Ready and waiting to serve you up a portion.

A portion of a way of seeing the world, as it truly is. This could all be a bit of a stretch for some. Perhaps it would’ve been for me at some point. But one thing is also true. That those accused of madness can level the same at their accusers. Funny that.

There really is a magic in the world.

Like really.

Waiting on a Text From a Girl That Isn’t Incoming

This is the tale of a text message.

And the opposing hemispheres of the brain. And about waiting. It began a few years ago on a Saturday morning of Spring when I came across my friend Will standing especially morosely in the queue of a coffee shop. Knowing he was in the seedling stages of a romance I asked him how it was going. Awful, he replied. I was fine until ten minutes ago. What happened, I asked. I fucking texted her. Now I’m fucked. Every minute that goes by until she texts back is a complete hell. I just nuked my whole morning.

At some point in my past, my brain started working in this strange way that was hellbent on trying to link two ideas together. Like the time I realised the life-cycle of a leaf was a meditation on growing old. Or how my fear of police sirens was my inner child fleeing parental authority. I’d make these pretty banal connections and sit back and feel like Carl Jung.

But one tenuous link eluded me. I knew it meant something, but whatever that was had me stumped. I’d always kept my phone on silent, so I wouldn’t be bothered by the beeping, but I couldn’t work out why. My gut told me it was a dislike for loud intrusive noises or a luddite relationship to technology, or simply not wanting to be disturbed while I concentrated on something. 

But this explanation never did it for me. It was something deeper. 

And so I found myself the other day wandering the streets of Rome, in a state familiar to my mate Will that day outside the coffee shop, waiting on a text message. Feeling my day being eaten up by angst. When I was supposed to be taking in the beauty of the ancient capital of the world, all I could think about was this stupid little box of plastic in my pocket. And I just kept checking it. And checking it. And getting more and more angry with myself for caring.

My friend Jonty who was with me, and who I was submitting to the tortures of my uncertainty, told me about the left and right hemispheres of the brain. The left hemisphere, he said, is the linear, problem-solving, logistical sphere. The right brain is more creative, holistic and eternal. With my mind still consumed by the lone antidote I sought for the unbearable pain of my life, I heard him say mate… just be more right brain about the whole thing.

Put your phone on loud. That way if you get a message, you’ll hear it.

You won’t have to check it all the time.

Like the Ignudi sent from the heavens on the Sistine Chapel ceiling not far away, the solution to my silent-mode question descended from on high sent by a celestial hand. It wasn’t about being bothered by the beeping, it was the opposite. I kept my phone on silent because of hope. As long as my phone was on silent, I held out a hope there might be something on it I needed to read, that I hadn’t checked yet. With my phone on silent, I was close to a message all the time, because silence meant its opposite, it meant everything.

Hope is a good thing, maybe even the best of things.


And no good thing ever dies.

I realised what I feared most was what silence stood for, when my phone was on loud. It stood for nothing at all. For rejection. For being achingly alone.

*

Have patience with everything that is unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign tongue. Do not seek the answers, which could not be given to you, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far into the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

Rainer Maria Rilke

*

So I took the plunge and stuck my phone on loud. So I could really know what silence was. That it was exactly that. Silent. And I could learn to sit in it. To love the questions themselves liked locked doors or books written in a very foreign tongue, and leave the answers alone.


Along many meandering conversations Jonty and I spoke of presence, and of being thankful for being itself. That there were really only a few things in life worth complaining about, and heartache definitely wasn’t one of them. The mere sense of living was joy enough.


One late afternoon in Rome as we sheltered in the cool of the apartment as the last rays of Italian sun found their way through the shutters, I spied my phone lying on the table, discretely minding its business, with its new functionality, ready to sound out if anything came its way. And I gazed at the shafts of light knifing the darkness, and felt a contentment wash over me. A contentment that came from sitting in the unknowing and the blessed unrest. To wait for this thing to come knocking, if it did at all, that I would hear its knock when it came.

Coming Back to Life Feels Alright Actually

Happiness is a bench on a railway platform on a Sunday afternoon dropped in the middle of fields. Waiting for something that will happen but not too soon. Birds are singing to one another in trees out of sight, the air is thick with the ease of a summer afternoon of inconsequence. The train will come, and move off again, and life will continue along its sinuous path. But for the moment not a lot is up to very much.

Right now happiness is the inhibition of dopamine reuptake through norepinephrine and dopamine transporters found in the prefrontal cortex of my brain. Each morning I sodastream some refrigerated tap water and wash a little white pill down my throat and it goes to work. Five weeks I’ve been doing it now.

But happiness isn’t the right word exactly. I wouldn’t say I’m happy this minute. I don’t know what happiness means today. I thought I knew yesterday when I sat down to write. But it isn’t here now, it must have got bored and moved on someplace else. I feel okay but I’m not euphoric.

It turns out writing about happiness is harder than writing about its opposite.

My doctor said he thought my depression was endogenous, that it came from inside me rather than being brought about by external events. He would say that wouldn’t he, said my mother. That’s what all therapists want you to hear. But your mother would say that, said my girlfriend. Accepting you have an illness is harder than reasoning you’re idle and uninspired.

As the meds went to work I noticed things becoming a little easier. Doom didn’t last as long. I’d wake up okay and go to bed okay, and things might get bad but I wouldn’t fall so far. Things were good, or at least better. Things were moving in the right direction. And I figured something out. The opposite of feeling shit isn’t happiness. The opposite of feeling shit is not feeling shit. The pills weren’t magicking up happiness, they were softening the blows. The floor of my mood was more a paddling pool than a dank black sea.

And I realised the happiness was up to me.

When my despair began to unseam itself it made me think of the parity between physical and mental health. You take good health for granted until it’s taken from you. And when it returns you feel incredibly thankful, to have something back you never realised you might be without. Increasingly I had my health, and all things twinkled in the gloaming.

But happiness is a bullshit word.

Happiness is wonderful but it’s also kind of stupid. It is camp and fleeting and unfaithful. It seems strange to see it as the bullseye. Happiness can be a high, but I don’t think it can be a state. The world is too twisted and gnarled and unstable for us to be hung up on the pursuit of it, maybe the best we can ask for is an absence of misery.

Lincoln said folk are usually about as happy as they make up their minds to be. What he meant was we have agency over it, that perhaps happiness can be the by-product of things within our control. If you have the cud of an engaged life ruminating in your gut, now and again you’ll fart out some happiness.

*

Those are only happy (I thought) who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way.

John Stuart Mill

*

Happiness for me means coming back to life. It’s the sunlight of the early morning turning my plants translucent. It’s cycling through strange back streets in Lewisham at midnight listening to hiphop in the hurling rain. It’s the golden half-minute window propping up the bar as your pint gets poured. It’s the crema on the espresso from my expensive new coffee machine. It’s the clean feel of the street after rain. The line in the book that makes you freeze. The honeysuckle by the canal, the smile from the bus driver, the interrupted dream that finds its way back.

It is like the world has been illuminated. 

It’s the feeling of strength that comes from a trust that when this happiness subsides there isn’t this darkness waiting to envelop you. And not being the hostage of the next thought that comes careening into your head. More than anything happiness is just not feeling like shit. 

Perhaps there is a deeper longer-term happiness. The happiness in realising everything you already have is all you really need. I don’t think I’m there yet. It could also be having children. Last time I checked I wasn’t there yet either. But when you spend a very long time feeling apart from the world, seeing it through a glass darkly, to realise it’s still there and you are a part of it again and you have a role to play, and the people you love are still around and they love you and all is waiting to be resumed.

It’s pretty cool.

Love Eventually In The Arrival Lounge of T5

I can’t believe there is a human on this earth whose heart doesn’t start beating in double-time as they walk through the doors into an arrivals lounge of an airport, clinging to the hope that someone might be there waiting for them.


Even if not a soul on the planet has any way of knowing you’re even on the flight, there is a part of you that holds out hope the love of your life will be standing there expectantly with open arms. I’m basically alluding to females, but family I suppose would do. Besides, if you’re a parent the love of your life basically is your kids. Either way there are worse places to be. There’s a lot of goodness and happiness and beautiful human emotion at play.


When’s the last time you watched Love Actually. The end credits are a montage of these exact moments.

So with this in mind, off went my alarm at 4.30am, and as the sun rose reluctantly to thaw an especially butt-cold morning of spring, I roused myself from slumber and picked my way through empty streets and across London to Paddington. After six months in Argentina, my old man was returning to his adopted country. His flight was landing at Heathrow’s Terminal 5 at 6.25am and a strong pang of filial duty was going to have me there, a smiling face in an indifferent crowd, awaiting with open arms. So we too could share in a Love Actually moment.


I had money on the fact that this show of filial devotion was gonna make my old man’s year. I did some maths and figured that a 6.25am landing time, factoring in passports and baggage-reclaim and all that stuff, meant I could confidently take my place at the barrier around 7am. I arrived at three minutes to seven precisely.

The place seemed strangely deserted.

So I waited.

And as I waited, all around me I saw beautiful scenes emerging. People reunited with their loved ones. All colours and creeds, of all ages, locked in passionate embraces, happy to be together again. All of a sudden life became so simple. Love was the starring role.


Three generations of an Indian family in a rugby-scrum of affection. A mother back from some exotic land being smothered, literally throttled, by her two young daughters, as their father looked on smiling sleepily. A woman bounding up to her ageing father, of such beauty, that in the blinking of an eye I’d imagined our life together and was thinking up subjects with which to seduce my new father-in-law the moment she introduced us.

But no sign of pops.

The information board told me his plane had landed slightly earlier, at 6.17am. And as the second hand ticked on, I furrowed my brow and attempted some more maths. It was nearing 7.30am, over an hour since he landed. But T5 is massive, I thought, and with respect my old man is no Linford Christie, not after two hip operations and six months of fine argentine cuisine. Something must’ve been holding him up.

Something, or someone.

I did some more thinking. He hates other people, he hates flying, he loathes airports, odds-on he’d be marching through passport control with a scowl of unabated black-thunder etched onto his face. Marry that with his insistence on wearing dark glasses and a panama hat at all times, his not-unnoticeable latin-infused english accent, and he’d comfortably take his place on any FBI’s most-wanted list. I mean, of course he got stopped.


I then smiled at the thought that even if he was packing 23 kilos of uncut Colombian, stopping papa on the back end of a 14 hour flight, in his least-favourite environment, having just touched down in a country he doesn’t even want to be in, with the moods he’s capable of mustering, and the scenes he’s capable of making, it was resoundingly in Customs’ best-interests to leave that man alone.

On I waited.


I took some dope selfies.


I did some more maths.


It was now past 8am, and still T5 remained papa-less.


I wondered if he’d even got on the plane.

It was when fifteen rowdy Hasidic Jews came through the double-doors barking yiddish, and looking up I saw a flight from Tel–Aviv that had landed over an hour after the one from Buenos Aires, that by now no longer even featured on the information board, that I admitted defeat. My watch read 8.17am.

If my old man had spent two hours in between landing and arrivals and was only coming through now, he’d most likely be absolutely livid. And I’d be damned if I was going to wait around for that shit-storm. I shrugged my shoulders and thought of that line from Alien, in space no-one can hear you scream, and how it had no relevance whatsoever to the present moment.

So I lensed a final selfie, as proof of my heroic odyssey, and bailed.

Sitting there on the train rolling back into central London, I thought about plane travel, and how although our horizons would obviously be much narrower without it, maybe this ability to fly all over the earth wasn’t necessarily that healthy. That perhaps planes had messed something up in some way. The slickness of T5 had definitely messed my shit up, I remember a time when getting from the cabin-doors to the arrivals lounge was the work of two hours, easy. Now an irate Argentine nursing a couple of titanium balls for hips can motor through in under 30 minutes.

It made me sad.

Because at the end of it all, life is made up of moments. And the heightened emotions attached to these moments. The time you first set eyes on the love of your life. Your first pinger. Your child’s first steps. To a lesser extent, the time your son comes to meet you at the airport unexpectedly at 7am on the morning of some idle Thursday, and you ride into town together in a cab and shoot the breeze.


The precise moments I saw unfolding between strangers as I waited for my old man to wheel his trolley through the double-doors. But he never did. Nevertheless, being a witness to these moments and their warmth was plenishment for the soul. It was a reminder that the really truly important things in life aren’t that many in number. There’s really just one of them.

The old L word.


It was a reminder to go and put the old L word into practice.


And hurry up doing it.